Monthly Archives: June 2009

June 24, 2009

Etude for Easy

Negligible piano piece, hot off the nothing!


3 HOURS LATER: Hm. Came back and listened and heard something totally different from what I wrote. Turns out this is an etude for something after all – for evenness. This piece really doesn’t work at all, when played with my trademark horribly sloppy uneven rhythms. So here’s a new quantized version. Also, I think the idea that the score would leave the phrasing up to the forces of nature is problematic. It asks a bit much of the ear – this piece is plenty ambiguous to the listener even if the player is very specific about phrasing. So here’s a revised score: this time with my secret phrasing intentions all spelled out. But part of me still wants to think of this as just a cheat sheet, and the all-4/4 version is the real piece.

Just putting that on the record so that it can be incorporated into Appendix 2 of the eventual Urtext edition, currently listed as “in prep.”

Plus the hammer noise on that piano sound was bothering me, so this time let’s hear my other, equally fake piano.

new audio
new score

June 8, 2009

Disney Canon #20: The Aristocats (1970)


ADAM [deadpan] I have so many thoughts it’s hard to know where to begin. It was weird to see C-3PO cast as a villain.

BROOM His villainy was as minimal as possible.

BETH He was just an annoyance.

BROOM In this replay of the plot of 101 Dalmatians, they had, clearly, intentionally dialed down the threat level. There was essentially no threat here.

BETH Well, death by oven.

BROOM No. He was just holding them in there until he could send them to Timbuktu. That was the greatest threat that was ever held over them.

ADAM It was sort of like 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, turned down to five.

BROOM Turned way down. So: based on having seen stills of this movie — or maybe even a few seconds of animation — I expected that what would be depressing about it would be the appearance of it, that it would look ugly and hairy and be shoddy. And that turned out not to be a problem at all. I thought the animation was actually all it had going for it. It felt like this non-starter project had been handed over to the art department and they had done a fine, serviceable job of it. What it was lacking was any reason to be, any story interest. I also thought the musical score really dragged it down constantly. It was the laziest kind of imitation of Henry Mancini, which was the least considered, most reflexive thing to do in 1970. It never played the drama of what was actually happening. Any scene with the geese just had that imitation-Mancini “goose walk music!” The same music: when they were in the water, when they were on the shore, when they were in the city street at night with the drunk goose — in all of those situations, the same thing: [hums dinky goose music]. The whole movie suffered from the same flaw: total insensitivity to whatever little story there was.

BETH Plus — and I don’t remember if this was true of Lady and the Tramptoo — the music didn’t seem to have anything to do with the period. Maybe in Lady and the Tramp the music just worked better because it wasn’t in a style that was as obviously popular to us as this was. I don’t remember the music from Lady and the Tramp so well; just the Italian song.

ADAM Peg had a song. “He’s a Tramp.”

BROOM Yeah, that was actually pretty similar in spirit to the songs from Aristocats.

BETH Right. That wasn’t very 1910 either.

BROOM When you guys started joking about how this wasn’t very 1910-ish, I didn’t even realize that it was supposed to be 1910; I missed that at the beginning. There was nothing 1910 about it in any way. The fact that she had a butler was about it. If they had said that this was 1970 and this just happened to be a fantastically upper-crust lady that would have been just as acceptable.

ADAM It was a little like “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” in the look.

BROOM I thought it was just an all-purpose cartoon look. And it was full of so many blatant anachronisms, especially in who those alley cats were. A bead-wearing hippie?

ADAM Which was more embarrassing: the alley cats here, or the vulture-Beatles in The Jungle Book?

BROOM I thought this was far more embarrassing. I think the Siamese cat in this movie was the most embarrassing thing yet. “Shanghai Hong Kong egg foo yung?” We thought the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp were shameful — they were models of restraint compared to this guy.

ADAM I mean, which was more embarrassingly trying to be “with it,” like someone’s dad talking about punk rock.

BETH Those vultures were pretty embarrassing. This was embarrassing too. They’re both embarrassing. Equally.

BROOM The sneaking-around Henry Mancini music for the butler was deeply embarrassing for me. Every time this stuffy old butler showed up, in come the jazz bass and the trombones, which were just completely wrong. They had everything to do with being up to date, and nothing to do with the movie.

ADAM The movie was just so boring!

BETH It was very boring. Especially if you’re tired, it’s really unwatchable.

ADAM A third of this movie was like, “François! Juliette! Take your musique lesson!”

BROOM Their names were Berlioz and Toulouse!

ADAM I know.

BETH And Marie.

BROOM Who do you think Marie was? Marie Curie?

ADAM It was just painfully dull. “What are all the things we can think of about upper-crust French people? Doing boring shit?” I’m surprised they didn’t have a whole scene that was a porcelain-painting lesson.

BROOM That the second song was basically just “Play your scales! Play your scales!” just typified the whole movie. And that scene: I understand that the animator probably went to the music director and said “We just can’t afford to worry about him playing the right notes on the piano, so live with it,” but it was really distractingly absurd, what he was doing.

ADAM It was weird to picture Eva Gabor making love to Baloo.

BROOM The love in this movie was too sexual. She was too trampy.

ADAM Yeah. O’Malley cat comes up to her and she immediately starts licking herself. In front of her children!

BROOM The implication was that they were eagerly thinking, “I hope that alley cat does Mom.” They never established the idea that this family unit is lacking a father. I mean, it is, obviously, by the arithmetic of it, but there was no emotional sense of any need. So when they’re peeking out at mom vamping for this sleazeball, all you can imagine is that he’s going to have his way with her, which is clearly all he wants. He never cared about them. “Hey, babe!” But the main problem with it was, as I said, that it was just an animated movie about cats for the sake of there being an animated movie about cats.

BETH It had a Scooby-Doo quality to it. Something about the animation reminded me of Scooby-Doo.

ADAM It was classier than that. But it seemed like it was really labored. When they did Madame’s face, it was the most elaborate thing in the movie, but it was so cross-hatched with effort. Like they’d forgotten how to do faces. Or how to erase pencil marks. It just felt constipated with effort.

BROOM I felt like I was watching the animators’ workshop working without direction. The director had checked out, or management was somehow confused, and so they were all going to work and doing their animator-y things. Like the first ten minutes, which pointlessly consisted of watching the doddering lawyer go up the stairs: his choreography was very elaborate, and you got to see him do all kinds of stuff. It looked like exactly the technical stuff that occupies animators. Like: there’s going to be spring-back in his body, and then his foot will counter-balance by going back, and then he’s going to bend and stretch him this way, and then there will be two kinds of motion at once… it looks like every animator was doing his pet project or exercise, because there was no coordination to make those moments meaningful as anything other than animated business. And I think that what reminds you of Scooby-Doo is the fact that all the post-production was so slapdash and insensitive.

BETH It’s the sound effects. It’s that late-60s sound-effect thing.

BROOM Not trying to create any particular dramatic arc or impression; just getting stuff out of a bucket and dropping the stuff on the movie until it’s done.

ADAM Did we just hear this tune: [hums “Baby Elephant Walk”]?

BROOM No! That’s real Henry Mancini, that’s “Baby Elephant Walk.” When I hummed before, that’s what started you thinking of it, but I was just doing my impression of the goose music from this movie.

ADAM What was your favorite moment in the movie? Because I had one favorite moment.

BROOM My favorite moment was when the horse came into the house to sing at the end.

ADAM My favorite moment was when Madame wakes up in the middle of the night and she has long hair. It reminded me of “A Rose for Emily.” Do you know that story?

BROOM Is that the Faulkner story where the old lady sleeps in the same bed with her dead husband?


BROOM What was your least favorite moment?

ADAM The other parts! It was really boring. The drama of O’Malley almost drowning in the river? Not dramatic! Not interesting! And the train? There were all these things that felt like, “[exhausted groan], so what other obstacles can we throw at them?”

BETH Exactly. When Marie fell off into the water, that just felt like crappy scriptwriting.

ADAM None of it hung together at all.

BROOM Yeah, you never believed in any of those moments.

ADAM “We need to fit ten obstacles between the porcelain painting scenes. Okay, dogs. Okay, I guess dogs are southern. Okay, and there will be a madcap scene with a sidecar. And a windmill. All right, fine. Uh… okay, um…. train trestles…”

BROOM “I know, a retrieving-something-from-a-sleeper’s-grip scene. Okay, good. Do you want to do feather-tickle or fishing rod? Let’s do fishing rod. Well, let’s get a tickle in there too. Okay.” Ugh, and the action music for the windmill chase scene was so awful. They had worked out all these intricate gags, and the music was just like the same blaring brass hits, repeated over and over to cover the whole sequence. Beth, what do you think you would think of this movie as a six-year-old.

BETH Bored. Very bored. But I would like the part at the end when the lights are flashing and everything was changing into different colors.

ADAM I would have been entranced by the fact that it was set in Paris. I would have found that so romantic.

BETH I would have liked that too. And I did like the backgrounds. The elaborate furniture and that sort of stuff, I thought, was nicely done. It had a mood.

BROOM I think I would have found it congenial and pleasant to look at. It would have been boring, of course, because it is boring, it just doesn’t grip you. But I thought that in terms of being spaces to imagine yourself in, it would have served. It was a series of inoffensively pleasant places, like your family took you out to a restaurant that was perfectly fine.

BETH It had some nice space. Like when they visit the alley cats, that house is a cool space.

BROOM I thought that the backgrounds were actually better than the Jungle Book backgrounds, the previous movie’s. But they didn’t hold a candle to 101 Dalmatians.

ADAM Okay: this was essentially the same movie as 101 Dalmatians, so why was this so much worse? Was it because the characters weren’t properly developed? There was a slackness to this that there wasn’t in 101 Dalmatians.

BROOM Yes. I think there was a witlessness to both the scripting and the directing. And, as I’ve said, post-production elements like the sound effects and music.

BETH I think it was mostly the script. I think the lack of threat was a problem. There wasn’t enough conflict driving the action, throughout. Once they were just trying to make their way home, that’s all that was happening.

BROOM This was not a sharp enough movie to afford the inclusion of geese with “bad senses of humor.” The idea that they were making lame jokes — we weren’t flying nearly high enough for them to pull that off. Is that a British stereotype? That they have wretched senses of humor?

BETH Yes, I think the idea that the British like “silly jokes” is a stereotype.

ADAM Why did they take the time to go see the alley cats when they could have just gone home?

BETH They were entranced. The kids were tired and she was in love.

ADAM They obviously didn’t miss Madame that much.

BROOM They were waiting to show up in the daytime.

BETH Okay, let’s read the New York Times review.

[BROOM begins looking it up]

BROOM Oops, I spelled “Aristocrats” correctly by mistake. Which reminds me, I wanted to make a joke, like, about the part of the movie where…

ADAM Where they were, like, all fucking each other?

BROOM Yeah. Where the mom makes a hairball right into the daughter’s mouth.

[we read the review]

BROOM That review just makes you realize that 1970 must have been a terrible time.

ADAM It’s true. All the great institutions had lost all confidence in themselves, The New York Times no less than Walt Disney Studios.

BROOM It had its commas in the wrong places, and it was all about “Know what I’m saying, my swinging readers?” That was my most embarrassing moment: the review. Too bad there wasn’t a byline; if that had been baby Janet Maslin or something, that would have been sobering to us. But it was probably someone who didn’t last. Probably got high a little too often. Plus they got this movie so wrong.

ADAM It must have been such a culturally dislocated time.

BROOM Somewhere in between The Jungle Book, which just had that tentative Beatles thing, and now, you can sense that there was just an anti-cultural explosion. And it’s not even like Disney was trying to embrace that, here.

BETH No. They were just doing something mainstream.

BROOM Which had gotten so dumbed down. If had been Marshall McLuhan writing about culture then, of course I would have said that everything had gotten dumber. It’s gotten so much dumber over the course of these movies, right?

BETH Well, yeah.

BROOM Since when? Has it been downhill since World War II?

BETH No. Alice in Wonderland isn’t dumb.

ADAM As these things go. And neither is Dalmatians.

BROOM But Cinderella was dumb, and that was the start of the post-war period. Dalmatians wasn’t dumb, I suppose, but it definitely had its sights lower.

ADAM I suppose that’s right. We just liked it because there were the funny bachelor parts at the beginning, but the actual puppies part was pretty rote.

BROOM And surely that’s why it was popular. Kids wanted to watch puppies.

ADAM Right, not the swinging bachelor dog.

BROOM So, not to give away the story, but looking forward we’re going to have about twenty years of riding the rapids of dumbed-down mainstream stuff, and then there’s finally going to be the revolution, the renaissance, but it’s going to be this liberal-agenda Pocahontas shit, and it’s sort of sad to think that that was the middlebrow’s best hope for renewal. Is that really what the storyline is?

ADAM The best hope for renewal is Rapunzel. I have a lot riding on Rapunzel.

BROOM That’s two from now, right? The Princess and the Frog comes first?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM I don’t know what you can have riding on that. You know, Ross Douthat, before his New York Times appearances —

ADAM His disappointing New York Times appearances.

BROOM — wrote something on The Atlantic’s site about how he misses middlebrow movies — how it used to be the glory of Hollywood that it made something genuinely, wholesomely middlebrow. And I feel like that’s what we’ve been watching, here. Snow White was just an experiment, they didn’t know what it was, but then after the war, they found what it was: it was middlebrow, it was something for everyone to come and see. And now we’re just watching its standards slide. And that’s sad. And it is because of those damn hippies; that’s how that review made me feel.

ADAM It’s like the French revolution: it’s not the revolutionaries’ fault that everything went to pot, even though everything did. I mean, the things that happened in the 60s and 70s were by and large good for everyone, but they were wrenching.

BROOM I’m not proposing that those things shouldn’t have happened, or that it would be better if they hadn’t. But there’s a cause and effect relationship.

ADAM Well, this isn’t the place for macro-cultural criticism.


June 8, 2009

Manifesto (?)

While on a train a few months ago, I was reflecting on our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with art, and had a thought that felt like a prescription for improving it, which I jotted down. Looking over those notes now, it reads like a sort of manifesto. I don’t know if this is my manifesto, but it could be someone’s.

For a while now I was thinking I wouldn’t post this, because I didn’t want to have to answer for it, for its content or its tone. But I’m posting it now after all because 1. no fear! and 2. the sentiment here, though I have reservations about it, informs my thinking about other stuff I’ve been posting; so it only makes sense that the imaginary ideal reader should have access to it all.

The actual readers I don’t know about. But they’re not my problem; see #1.

Also, if I move fast enough, I can bury this with the anodyne entry on The Aristocats. Stay tuned.

Art with the lights on!

The artistic experience needs to be communal to be whole; both the art and the audience must come from the world as we live it — not from an un-world, an imaginary place.

Too much art today is experienced voyeuristically; it doesn’t know we’re watching, and we feel we’re getting away with it. The rest of this crowd might know each other but we certainly don’t.

Hearing something like a Tchaikovsky symphony should be an experience of communal catharsis — one should leave feeling reawakened to the fact that one’s fellow man has such feelings in him and has it in him to be stirred by them. One’s fellow man in the most immediate sense, one’s actual community.

We can watch a sentimental movie in the dark, but if we leave and everyone’s face is hard, everyone a stranger, all we learn is to harden ourselves, to tuck our experience deeper inside.

The lights must be on, and the protocol must be indistinguishable from attention. Right now, we need harsh audience protocol only because attention has been mis-trained — we need to stifle people’s natural voices because their nature is so poorly socialized. They have been brought up not knowing how or why to be attentive. But in a society where the “good listener” is not a social rarity, the quiet of the concert hall should be a instinctive expression of engagement with everyone present, and only that.

Art should be a conversation in which we feel no need to speak while the other is speaking. The response should be more art, and it should be for our fellow conversationalists, the community of the audience.

The significance to art of ogling the familiar aristocrats in their box seats must not be underestimated; the giggling, whispering pleasure of gossiping and belonging.

I am more deeply drawn into the fantasy of a work when I’m alone, but I have a more memorable and joyous experience when I am connected to my social brethren. In between is just gradations of artificiality.

And being lost in voyeurism has a sickly, thin feel. All these ipods are machines for plugging ourselves into a universe of anonymity.

Live music is only better if there is a community in the building. Those who sell “live music is better” without any real world around it, with the lights off and hostile ushers, are just repeating something they read in their own PR.

“I knows what I likes” is a comment for friends; we should be surrounded by such friends at the museum, at the concert, everywhere.

We should be paying artists to provide these welcome experiences simply because funding a social necessity is a social good — we should be paying artists in the same spirit that we’d pay someone to prepare our picnics: just to save us the trouble, or because they can do it that much better. If one of our friends is a musician, he should play music for us. If he’s so good at it that we’d all rather he spent his time on that than anything else, we should pay him for it — so that we can be so lucky as to have him playing for us.

Instead, we pay artists for their product — like a narcotic, like a consumable. Artists need to exist to produce these THINGS which we then need because… that’s what people do? Because the model of consumption is more intuitively accessible to us than the model of community. And because we believe that we need distraction and numbing, as though those are natural desires of the human animal. Muzak, and then muzak trading cards and muzak trading card markets, blah blah blah, up to the farce of the “art world,” where people go through the motions of having a salon or a hired bard when in fact they have a golden-egg-laying hen and they are trying to leverage it. Meanwhile they go on feeling lonely.

The only thing any human really wants, the only thing really worth working for is experience. Products are a middleman, a technicality, and should be ignored by the layman. Only a professional knows what to do with a “symphony.”

The thrill and wonder and invigoration of knowing that the composer/director/creator is in the room should be always alive. Knowing that we did this, and we did it for us, and I belong to that we. “I’m glad they asked this guy and not me!” the non-artist should say, “because he’s so good at being the one to do it!” But they could have asked you. This — life on earth — is a team effort.

Art has gone from being the family party to being the neighborhood party, to the chaperoned school dance, to the monitored school assembly, to the proctored exam. And then to the principal’s office. At the modern art museums there is even a whiff of the interrogation room. Beyond which is the torture chamber.

Larger groups require larger structures, and larger structures demand governance, but the government of art no longer has the people clearly in mind. It has stagnated and, unwittingly, grown corrupt.

Our social structures are fractured. The social group and the local community are entirely discrete entities, and the individual is not protected from falling out of either. Twitter, Facebook, fan conventions — these internet-facilitated “sociality products” feed the hunger, but they are symptoms, not cures. The actual cultural structures of the real society are counter-productive and so we require these jerry-rigged products to make them semi-human. These are speakeasies holding out in fear of a bust, and we are all huddled inside, nervous. This is our hour of need.

A revolution by the serfs never does anyone any good; serfs don’t know what they’re doing either, and class resentment will poison generations to come. We need peaceful renewal. We simply need to make the people aware of what they’re missing and a movement to replace the feeble aristocracy will rise. Turn on the lights and let them see each other!

June 7, 2009

D’Indy: Symphony on a French Mountain Air for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25 (1886)

Vincent d’Indy (1851–1931)
Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (Symphonie cévenole), op. 25
composed: 1886 (age 35)
first performance: Paris, March 20, 1887 (Marie Bordes-Pène, Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux/Charles Lamoureux?)

I don’t have the date of this photograph but based on other dated photos, he looks to be about the right age here. The headline on his newspaper says “L’Art Moderne,” which is pretty cool. Though it does seem likely that either he or the photographer rigged that up on purpose.



1. The fact of this piece being on the “Essential Canon” list.

When the Medtner concerto came around, I said “If nobody knows a piece, it’s definitionally not in the Essential Canon, quality be damned,” and I stand by that. But in this case, though the quality of the piece may in fact be lower, I have more sympathy for the inclusion of an obscure work, because there was a time when it wasn’t obscure.

Monsieur d’Indy does not make even a single appearance in the 1001 Recordings list, and recordings of his works — not to mention performances — are truly few and far between. Even in this, the Era of The Long Tail, d’Indy manages to be decidedly obscure. And yet I’m almost certain that his was one of the lucky names on the “timeline of classical music” poster that my piano teacher had on the wall. Almost every classical musician knows that Vincent d’Indy is a famous composer — but nobody knows his music. How can this be?

A strange thing about classical music culture — about any “museum” culture — is that because it’s all about the past, there’s no clear criterion for what’s obscure and what’s mainstream, despite the fact that these concepts are central to the way the subject is discussed. As I said the other day, Wozzeck is obscure if you’re asking the population at large, but it’s mainstream if you’re asking people who are into classical music. (Heck, Don Giovanni is obscure if you’re asking the population at large.) L’incoronazione di Poppea is obscure if you are asking people who aren’t into pre-baroque music, mainstream if you’re asking people who are. But this starts to get silly. If you’re into Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497), the Missa prolationum is totally mainstream.

The only reason I’ve heard of the pieces just mentioned is because they’ve been included in histories I’ve read, which means that someone thought they were relevant from a historian’s perspective. They are thus “mainstream” for music students. But this has all become a sort of an abuse of the concept of “mainstream.” Whatever Missa prolationum is to me — mainly: something that I’ve heard of — it’s certainly different from being essential to me, or culturally prevalent in the present day. (Of course, no classical music is actually prevalent in the present day — except for Carmina Burana and Flight of the Valkyries). The problem is that the distinction has been blurred between history and culture. Which, as I’ve said elsewhere, hasn’t been good for culture.

The question is, what does it really mean to claim that something is canonical? Is it a claim about the current consensus, the past consensus, or (what it usually seems to be) a claim about what the consensus should be and would be, if only we weren’t living in such benighted times?

At [the very old, very monied American university I attended], there is a concert hall built around 1914, in which a hall-of-fame of inscribed composers’ names runs overhead. The list is rigged so that the composers appear in approximate chronological order, but also so that HAYDN MOZART BEETHOVEN SCHUBERT CHOPIN fall directly over the stage. We students occasionally poked fun at this frieze for its irritating, inflated implication that “this is a temple and these are its gods” — but most of the snickering was reserved for the fact that the list ended with “… TSCHAIKOWSKY FRANCK BRAHMS.” Franck, eh? We would chuckle about how the smug old-schoolery of 1914 had shot itself in the foot: Franck, it had become clear in the intervening century, does not belong in that company, not at all. Who listens to Franck anymore? And who really likes it when they do?

Probably the unlucky person who had to come up with the list of names back in 1914 figured that Franck, who’d been as dead and adulated as Brahms and Tchaikovsky for more than 20 years, was a safe bet as an all-time great because he had followers (Chausson and, in particular, d’Indy, who was still alive and going strong), and followers mean a future. The “Franck school” would surely continue to be seen as the great turn-of-the-century movement in French music. Debussy had his admirers, sure, but where could that kind of gimmicky experimental stuff really lead? Besides, inscribing a living composer’s name on the walls of the temple would be sacrilege; it would demean the frieze by associating it with actual, flawed human beings.

So Franck’s name went up on the wall. But then, of course, starting just minutes after the gold leaf was set, the 20th century took culture by the hair and swung it around a few times until its neck was good and broken. In the process, all kinds of bits and pieces went flying into oblivion, and the Franck school, sadly, was among them. Even now, almost 100 years later, the scavenger hunt to pick up all the scattered fragments (and make them available for download) still hasn’t completely located the remains of Vincent d’Indy.

So: is d’Indy in this list because if it weren’t for the flaying of the canon (1914–1989) he might well still be in it? Or is he just in this list because historical music is music history, and music history tells us that Vincent d’Indy was, in his day, a prominent composer? I think the latter, but I am sympathetic to the logic of the former.

If any piece of d’Indy’s ever looked like it was going to make it into orbit, it was this symphony, which apparently maintained a place in the third-tier repertoire rotation well into the 20th century. It may even still have had some life in it after World War II, at least among French conductors. But at some point it finally bowed out. Rest in peace, Vincent d’Indy’s greatness.

But lo, what’s this? Culture’s skin has been stitched back on, its broken neck repaired with a couple of bolts, the corpse zapped with some kind of eerie blue lightning, and now it breaks free from its restraints and lumbers about — alive! Alive! It’s come back from the dead! “ME POST-POST-MODERN!!!” it bellows. “ME LOVE ART!!! ALSO SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE!!!! AND IPHONE!!!! ALSO GAUGIN!!! AND HONEYMOONERS!!! VINCENT D’INDY KIND OF AMAZING!!!! ALSO MORTON FELDMAN!!! AND MOZART!!! NEW STAR TREK MOVIE GOOD TOO!!! OMG YOU MUST TRY SPIDER ROLL!!! WHERE YOU WANT TO GO TODAY????”

Doesn’t it bring tears of joy to your eyes, to know that our long cultural nightmare is over?

2. This piece itself.

Admirable but flawed. Its flaws — “quirks” might be a kinder term — are a part of the same personality that gives it its appeal, and couldn’t be edited out if you tried. Like a sculpture made of pockmarked, pitted stone; if it had been carved of some smoother, more delicate stuff, it would have to be a different shape and would create a different impression: it would become some other work. This work is pockmarked and how could it be otherwise? The form and texture and substance create a sense together, and they share, among them, an imperfectness.

That in itself puts limits on how prominent this piece might ever become; it is an “interesting” piece and thus will always be off the most beaten path.

The piece is something of an experiment in instrumentation; it tries to incorporate the piano into the orchestral texture in a role that is prominent but several notches less so than in a concerto. I’m not particularly impressed with M. d’Indy’s accomplishment in this regard. He mostly seems to use the piano as though it were a loud harp, which isn’t really what it is. The percussive quality of the attacks isn’t really taken into aesthetic account, I don’t think, and many of his devices just don’t read well at all — like the instrument’s first entrance, where it bubbles out of the depths, thoroughly muddying the bass melody it’s supposed to color. Too much of the piano part, in my opinion, is standard filigree: arpeggio, scale, and repeated-note business, which no doubt requires careful practice but isn’t particularly interesting to the player, the composer, or the listener. The burden is really on the conductor, in this piece, to make the meaning and sense come to the fore.

And the sound engineer. The orchestration is full of odd colorful touches, but the intricacies are inconsistent and not always well-judged. A good deal of it gets swallowed up and ends up just sounding mushy, at least on the several recordings I was able to find. But it’s possible that some recording studio cheats to isolate the instruments could turn the piece into a delightful, flowering soundscape, which is how I bet Vincent imagined it.

The piece takes a “naïve” outdoorsy folk tune — it sounds like Hobbit music to me — and derives some of the material in each movement from it, audibly and directly. The symphony is also, as a whole, an attempt to do justice to the mountain-dwelling, nature-basking, stream-rippling spirit of the tune. On the most superficial level, this means sparkling waterfall arpeggios in the first movement, pastoral repose in the second movement, and bounding rabbits or something in the third movement. These sorts of things feel pretty stock, and in some ways, all the busy learnedness of the symphony pales next to the touching naïveté of the simple tune it is struggling to emulate and magnify. The tune is heard naked in the opening measures, and they’re probably the most memorable part of the whole piece.

But there is definitely a touch of beauty threaded through the work. It’s a little elusive, but there is something sensitive and real in there. And yes, it — whatever it is, down there in the poetic subconscious — has something to do with being out in the fresh air on a mountain. The piece is fluid but not limp; it has purpose. Quietly. That took some familiarity for me to hear.

The first movement is based on a proud-sounding “this fresh air does wonders for the constitution” type theme with a strong contour (up, then down!) but unfortunately no particular melodic outline to speak of — and then a nice flowing-grace-and-lightness 2nd theme very much a la Saint-Saëns. I have warmed to both of these, but the introductory ur-theme is still more effective than either.

The second movement is the best. The melody is lyrical and songlike but spun out in irregular conversational phrases; poetry in a flexible meter. This is where d’Indy comes the closest to achieving something of his own in the flavor of the folk tune. The chromatic B theme falls nicely in between fairy-tale and genuine uneasiness. On the first few listens, I thought I could do without the bombastic recapitulation, but having gotten to know it better, I see that it’s not so confident as it seems (the snaky second theme is lurking under it) and I’ve come to enjoy the whole course of the movement. I also like the watery pool where the movement finally slows to a stop: the sparkles that close the movement are in a sense completely gratuitous, and that’s what makes them particularly vivid for me.

The third movement is built over a bouncy diminution of the main melody, which never fails to sound lame to me, but the swooning second theme is pretty catchy 19th-century-style, and once the march-of-the-dwarfs-y snippet of movement 2 appears, the whole ending is peculiar good fun.

In the coda (around rehearsal letters U through X) there’s a metrical eccentricity. A new condensed version of the melody is heard in 8th notes, first in 2/4 and later in 3/8. In between, it’s heard twice as 6 bars of 3/8 plus 1 bar of 2/4. Over this, the composer writes “Même mouvement. (Les croches conservent toujours la même valeur.)” In other words, the 8th notes are constant. If performed that way, as written, there is a fun juxtaposed-meter effect, where the melody from the 2/4 section continues to recur, but the accompaniment begins to syncopate playfully against it, in 3/8. The single inserted bar of 2/4 is a temporary reconciliation between the two elements, but eventually the new 3/8 feeling wins over. This is catchy and propulsive and leads very satisfyingly to the climax.

But in all 4 of the recordings I heard, performed by people who should most certainly have known better, instead of keeping the 8th notes constant as requested explicitly on the page, the conductors keep the bars constant through the meter change, which means that when it launches into 3/8, there’s just a relaxed triplet feeling, and the 2/4 insertions come off as either a hiccup or a place where the record skips — which is a weird and intriguing effect, but clearly not the one d’Indy had in mind. Why would there be a hiccup in the music at that point? That obviously doesn’t make any sense! And yet Charles Munch and Paul Paray just forge ahead. I found this bewildering.

I mean, am I crazy? Those guys probably knew what they were doing, right? Even though it sounds bizarre, and even though it says something else in the score? I think niceties of rhythm and meter just weren’t top priorities for several generations of musicians. I don’t know why, but that seems to be the way it was.

Incidentally, this experiment in metrical modulation reminds me very much of the similar metrical experiment at the end of the Saint-Saëns symphony, composed the same year, which was also badly negotiated on most recordings. The Saint-Saëns is obviously the closest genetic relative to this piece that we’ve seen thus far, but I also hear some relationships to the much later Ravel concerto, both in particulars (compare the opening themes) and in the general textural impression. But Ravel’s is endlessly smooth and charming, whereas d’Indy feels a fair bit mustachioed and professorial.

But however odd and dated the essence of the thing, it is also sincere, intelligent, and heartfelt. I really did like it, by the end. I’d gladly listen to more d’Indy. But I’d go to the score sooner, next time. This little pocket of musical style really is more lost than others, and I don’t totally trust performers to know what it’s about.

Dubal said to try

C. Collard, Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, Janowski: Erato 2292-45821-2-ZK
Henriot-Schweitzer, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Munch: RCA 09026-62582-2

Nope, didn’t hear those, though the samples of the latter that I heard just now sounded better than anything I did hear. I heard

François-Joël Thiollier, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Antonio de Almeida (1994?) (1st movement here)
Louis Nagel, Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra/Rico Saccani (date?) (tracks 1–3 here)
Marguerite Long, Concerts Colonne/Paul Paray (1934) (which I found here)
Robert Casadesus, New York Philharmonic/Charles Munch (1948) (which I found here)

None of these is completely satisfying. The musicianship is more thoughtful on the older ones, but the crackly sound is a real impediment in trying to navigate the orchestration. I guess I’ll recommend the Munch one because there it is for the downloading, and it’s lively. And I’m obligated to boost the New York Philharmonic.

Scores! Including the full score and the 2 piano score.

This felt like a really awkward, clumsy draft, this entry, but right now I’d really like to be able to think about something else rather than feel obligated to go back and edit. [Your wish is granted.] Hooray!